Interesting Parental Rights / Religious Freedom Issue

Check out N.J. Div’n of Youth & Family Servs. v. Y.C. (N.J. App. Div. May 27, 2011), a case upholding the conclusion that Y.C. had abused or neglected her daughter, A.C. (which had led to a temporary removal of the child from Y.C.):

The gravamen of the abuse and neglect complaint was that, based on information she obtained over the internet, Y.C. arranged for her seven-year-old daughter to be subjected to a ceremony in which the child was handed over to strangers, pricked with a needle on various parts of her body, and forced to watch animals being strangled and having their throats cut….

A.C. reported to a school official “that she witnessed an animal sacrifice [in which] chickens, [a] goat, and a snake [were] killed…. [a]nd she got poked by a needle on her body.” The school official reported observing a series of “pin marks” on the child’s “toes, feet, hand, back/shoulder area, and forehead.” …

Y.C. [eventually] admitted that during the ceremony, A.C. was poked or scratched with “a needle-like object” and that “the goat’s neck was slit.” Y.C. denied the child’s allegation that A.C. was forced to eat part of a chicken’s heart, but stated that the heart was placed close to the child’s mouth….

The child told [Kenrick Lawrence, the Department of Youth and Family Services case worker] that she saw a goat and some chickens being beheaded, and she saw a dead snake. A.C. told Lawrence that she was fearful and crying during the ceremony and that the needles caused pain…. [A] doctor found a [puncture] mark on the child’s forehead, “several marks on the front of her shoulders, marks on her shoulder blades, marks on the backs of her calves, marks on the insides of her wrists, and marks on her feet.” …

No Free Exercise Clause argument or constitutional parental rights argument was made at trial; Y.C. said the ceremony wasn’t a religious practice (and in particular not part of a Santeria ritual, though the state investigator thought it might be), but rather that Y.C. “intended to enlist in the armed services, and that the ceremony was intended to ‘keep her daughter safe while she was gone.'” But it’s hard for me to see how such a ceremony could be intended to keep her daughter safe if it didn’t have some religious basis.

Hence a hypothetical: Say that another parent who wants her child to undergo this ceremony does sincerely state that she views the ceremony as a religious ceremony, and argues that her religious freedom rights or parental rights should allow her to conduct the ceremony. And say that the parent arranges things in a way that eliminates the risk of blood-borne diseases (e.g., by ensuring that the ceremony is done with properly sterilized equipment), so that the harm to the child is basically the modest pain caused by needle pokes, the temporary marks from the pokes, and the fear from having to observe the animals get killed.

Should the parent have a constitutional right to conduct this ceremony? Should it matter whether the parent feels a religious obligation to perform the ceremony, as opposed to just feeling that the ceremony would have value for the child (by keeping the child safe) through the intervention of spirits? Should it matter for constitutional purposes whether the parent hands over the child to religious figures, as opposed to staying with the child (even in a context where the child would still be scared despite the parent’s presence, and subjected to modest pain)? What if the parent’s religious belief system calls for the parent’s absence in order for the ceremony to be efficacious?

As you might gather, this raises some of the same parental rights and religious freedom issues that we had discussed in the circumcision discussion. Of course, there are substantial differences, which may justifiably lead to a different bottom line: circumcision of boys may well have long-term health benefits; when done to an infant, circumcision likely doesn’t leave lasting memories of pain or fear; at the same time, circumcision involves permanent excision of tissue and not just pin pricks. But I thought this would be an interesting way to test people’s intuitions about the proper scope of parental rights and religious freedom rights.

Here’s the court’s legal analysis:

In his oral opinion, … Judge Arthur Bergman found that this was not “a case about religion” and the ceremony was not “an exercise of religion.” He found no evidence that any of the participants were practicing a religion. “[B]ased on the testimony and the documents” introduced in evidence at the hearing, he found that the child did “take part in a ritual” in which she was “poked by needles” and saw chickens and a goat being killed. He found that “she had pain inflicted on her” and experienced fear. The judge concluded as a matter of law that those actions constituted abuse, and that Y.C. engaged in neglect by bringing her daughter to the ritual and allowing others to inflict pain and fear on the child. He found that DYFS proved by “more than a preponderance of the evidence” that the child “was neglected and abused.” Judge Bergman entered an order memorializing that finding on December 9, 2009.

Thereafter, the child and the mother participated in counseling, and the child, who had been living with her father, was returned to Y.C. The … litigation was dismissed on August 4, 2010….

As previously indicated, Y.C. did not raise any First Amendment issues before the trial court and did not introduce any evidence to support a religious-freedom claim. In fact, her counsel successfully argued to the trial judge that religion was not an issue in the case. Therefore, we will not consider Y.C.’s First Amendment claims raised for the first time on this appeal.

We turn next to Y.C.’s contention that the record does not support the judge’s finding of abuse and neglect. Our review of that decision is limited. We must defer to the trial court’s factual determinations “unless ‘they are so wholly insupportable as to result in a denial of justice,’ and should be upheld wherever they are ‘supported by adequate, substantial and credible evidence.'” We owe special deference to the factfinding of family part judges in light of their expertise. However, “[a] trial court’s interpretation of the law and the legal consequences that flow from established facts are not entitled to any special deference.”

In pertinent part, [New Jersey law] defines an abused or neglected child as: “a child whose physical, mental, or emotional condition has been impaired or is in imminent danger of becoming impaired as the result of the failure of his parent or guardian, as herein defined, to exercise a minimum degree of care … (b) in providing the child with proper supervision or guardianship, by unreasonably inflicting or allowing to be inflicted harm, or substantial risk thereof, including the infliction of excessive corporal punishment; or by any other acts of a similarly serious nature requiring the aid of the court.”

In determining whether a child has been abused or neglected in violation of the statute, the parent’s intent is irrelevant. Rather, the focus is on the harm to the child….

“[A] guardian fails to exercise a minimum degree of care when he or she is aware of the dangers inherent in a situation and fails adequately to supervise the child or recklessly creates a risk of serious injury to that child.”. For example, in M.C. III, the Court agreed with the trial judge that a father committed abuse, where he “intentionally grabbed the children and disregarded the substantial probability that injury would result from his conduct.” The agency need not wait until a child is irreparably harmed before acting.

In this case, we find no basis in the record to disturb Judge Bergman’s finding that Y.C. was responsible for abuse and neglect of A.C. By her own admission to DYFS workers, Y.C. took her seven-year-old daughter to a group of strangers she found over the internet and allowed them to subject the child to a ritual that involved puncturing the child with a needle-like instrument all over her body and killing live animals in her presence. The child told a DYFS worker that she was in pain, crying and scared. Both DYFS workers and a doctor found puncture marks, some scabbed, on the child’s body when they examined her.

Watching a stranger slit a goat’s throat and strangle live chickens would understandably be terrifying to a young child. Offering the chicken’s heart to the child to eat would also naturally be traumatic, as would having strange adults stick her with needles all over her body. Additionally, the risk of blood-borne diseases posed by needle punctures should have been obvious to Y.C. She subjected the child to physical pain, emotional trauma, and the risk of very serious physical harm. We therefore find no error in the judge’s conclusion that Y.C. committed abuse and neglect of A.C….

[Footnote: As previously noted, this case does not present First Amendment issues, and our decision should not be read as opining on the practices of any religion. There is no evidence that this ritual was part of the child’s family’s culture or religion. According to the child, her mother told her she was going to a place where she would be able to “pet” a goat. Instead, she was handed over to strangers who punctured her with needles and forced her to witness a live goat being decapitated.]

Thanks to Prof. Howard Friedman (Religion Clause) for the pointer.